Are NFL Teams Faking Injuries?

Sorry for the recent absence, I returned from Beirut and went right into recruiting season.  Once I’ve accepted an offer I’ll start posting again. In the meantime, I’ve got a guest post (unedited) from Jared Cohen (previous posts include the 4th down chart and the kick return strategy post).  You can find the original here. and follow the author on Twitter @jaredscohen.

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Given all the animated discussion over the Patriots tactics against the Ravens in their divisional round playoff game, I thought it would be as good a time as any to post some gamesmanship research.

If you read about the game – you know the Ravens were a bit upset with the Patriots usage of receiver eligibility to disguise their offense. The response from the Patriots was, well, Patriots-like. If it’s not against the letter of the law, it’s all good (unless it’s videotaping other teams, in which case even the law doesn’t matter).

Clearly, the NFL is a league where teams will look for any edge, even if it means pushing the bounds of fair competition.

So it’s with that issue in mind that I started digging into the possibility that players are faking injuries.

As a Philadelphia sports fan, I’m generally inclined to assume that my teams will ultimately lose, and so once the Eagles started running Chip Kelly’s offense, I was quick to accuse every injured defender a liar and a cheat (not to their faces of course).

The Eagles run a very high-tempo offense, one that doesn’t allow opposing defenses to leisurely make substitutions or get a full play clock to catch their breath. It’s a major feature of their strategy, and one that opposing teams would love to minimize, particularly if they aren’t well prepared for it.

One way to slow down the pace of the Eagles offense would be for an opponent to use their timeouts while the Eagles offense is in full-swing. But since a team only has three timeouts per half, they’re a little too valuable to burn. An injury however, is an official’s timeout – these are unlimited – and there’s no cost to the injured team outside of the last two minutes of a half, except that the injured player must sit out for the next play.

So in the current NFL world where fake injuries don’t have a cost (apart from having the ‘injured’ defender miss a play) and can help defenses maintain an easier pace – you could see why an Eagles fan might look at an opposing defender’s injury with suspicion.

Could the Eagles opponents be faking injuries to slow them down? The idea is one that makes the rounds in Eagles bars, but one that’s hard to actually evaluate. So this is my attempt to try.

Others have analyzed NFL injuries via metrics like games lost (i.e., players who aren’t active on game day because they’re injured), but to my knowledge, this is the first attempt to use play-by-play data to look at in-game injuries for trends and whether teams might be faking against the Eagles or other high-tempo teams.

The analysis is a bit long, so below are some quick takeaways:

– The Eagles suffered (or inflicted depending on your point of view) the most defensive injuries against the in league in 2014, and are 2nd in the league when adjusted for a per-play basis
– Across the league, there is a significant positive correlation between running more offensive plays and a higher per-play rate of defensive injury
– Such a correlation could be attributed to fatigue, but this correlation does not hold for the three other possible game situations (own offense, own defense, offense against) – these show no strong relationship between running more plays and a higher per-play rate of injury
– Taken together, these last two points support my hypothesis that players fake injuries against higher tempo offenses

Data Collection and Methodology:

I gathered play-by-play data from all the regular season games this year, and identified all the in-game injuries noted in the descriptions. In case you haven’t read play-by-play before, each play has its own line and explanation, and any play that resulted in an injury timeout is noted. Below is an example:

2-10-DET 40 (14:05) (Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete deep middle to 80-V.Cruz (27-G.Quin). DET-27-G.Quin was injured during the play.

If an injury was noted as a stoppage, it was recorded. In an ideal world, we’d eliminate injuries that are serious and clearly not fakes, but there’s no detail on the injuries in the game data, so we have to take the major with the minor.

The play-by-play injuries were then coded as to whether they occurred to the offense, defense, or on special teams (e.g., kick coverage). There were approximately 700 total observations, and while it’s possible that not all injuries were noted in the play-by-play data, this is the only comprehensive source for such information. Given that there are ~700 injury stoppages in our set, that works out to 2-3 injury timeouts per game, which sounds possible but could also be low. It’s possible that whoever officially creates the play-by-play gets lazy and misses some, my assumption here is that if any injuries are somehow missed, they aren’t biased towards one particular side of the ball.

After gathering the data, one additional adjustment is for play frequency. Simply put, the more snaps a player gets, the more likely they are to sustain an injury. Therefore, any team that runs more plays is more likely to see a higher absolute number of injuries. To account for this, I also looked up the total number of plays for each team’s offense and defense during the course of the year – to understand the rate of injury rather than the total number.

Output:

Let’s start with the absolutes. I found 692 injuries in the play by play data, 66 of which were special teams plays. I took these out, because they aren’t central to the question of are teams faking injuries to slow down offenses. Of the remaining injuries, I looked at whether they happened to an offensive player or a defensive player and which team they occurred against, below is the data from this season:

Not a shocker to see the Eagles at the very top of that list, and indeed they led the league in defensive injuries against this season.

However, as I already noted, this metric can be misleading. The Eagles offense runs more plays per game than any other team, so we would expect them to be near the top of this list. We need to adjust our data for the number of offensive plays – and we can examine the rate at which opposing defensive players get injured against the Eagles and whether they are still an outlier.

So as we see when we look at it on a rate basis (number of injuries/number of total offensive plays), the Eagles are still close to the top of the league, and roughly 50% above the league average. Houston is just above them, and while no one would consider their offense up-tempo, the fact that the Eagles are so high would be consistent with the theory that opposing teams might be faking injuries to slow them down.

Now, before we get any further down the faking rabbit hole, what if there’s a simpler explanation that doesn’t involve fake injuries? There’s another obvious possibility to explain why the Eagles are so high in defensive injuries against. What about the idea that as you run more plays, players get more physically exhausted, and therefore are naturally more susceptible to injury?

That seems possible, right? So let’s examine that idea a bit.

The first thing we can do is very simple, does injury frequency vary by quarter? If teams get physically tired during the course of the game and that leads to more fatigue and more injury, there should be more injuries as the game goes on:

Interesting. This sort of muddies our waters a bit.

In absolute terms, the number of injures rises dramatically as the game goes on. Injury stoppages in the fourth quarter occur at 2x the rate they do in the first quarter. Part of that can be explained by the fact that the clock stops more frequently in the fourth quarter than the others (and thus more plays), but that wouldn’t explain a 2x difference. I would want to check against the sheer number of plays run by quarter, but I don’t have that data without a bunch of more work.

Still – it looks like that thinking may be reasonable, injuries increase as the game goes on. But it’s also interesting to note that the increase is much more pronounced on the defensive side of the ball. We’ll come back to that later.

For the time being, let’s move on to looking for evidence of fake injuries.

As a general framework for this analysis, I’ve split the types of injury stoppages into four buckets:

1. While on defense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Defense)
2. While on defense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Offense)
3. While on offense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Offense)
4. While on offense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Defense)

We’ve been focused on bucket #4 thus far, and saw that on a per-play basis the Eagles are close to the top of the league in terms of defensive injuries against on a per-play basis. We also saw that overall injuries increase as the game goes on – but it seems much more prevalent on the defense, which is the side that would be interested in faking injuries.

So can we look a bit deeper to see if play frequency increases injury risk across each type of injury stoppage? The idea that running more plays increases the rate of injury should not be exclusive to offense or defense – although it appears that way at first glance – it’s hard for me to believe that defensive players are in any worse shape or take any harder hits than offensive players.

To take a look at the issue, I ran some basic correlations across each of those four injury types, looking at the number of plays run and the rate of injury. Just to clarify, I summarized the four below:

1. Your defense runs more plays and gets injured more often (this would be a bad defense)
2. Your defense runs more plays and your opponent gets injured more often
3. Your offense runs more plays and gets injured more often (this would be a good offense)
4. Your offense runs more plays and your opponent gets injured more often

Again, if the rate of injury increases with more plays, we should see relationships in each of these situations. So what do we see?

#1 – So earlier we saw defenses suffering more injuries as the game goes on…and yet, when we look at number of defensive plays per game and the rate of defensive injury, there really doesn’t seem to be any relationship. Teams with defenses that are on the field a lot don’t seem to get injured at a higher rate than those who execute fewer plays.

#2 – Our next picture shows a similar lack of correlation, this time between defensive plays per game and the rate of opponent offensive injury. This idea would be that if an opposing defense is really bad, your offense gets more plays, and might get hurt more frequently. But the data shows nothing that looks like a relationship.

#3 – Now we’re on the offensive side of the ball, looking at whether an offense that runs a lot of plays suffers a higher rate of injury. There’s actually a relatively weak negative correlation between running lots of offensive plays and suffering offensive injuries. If you want to believe in things like Chip Kelly’s Sport Science program, you would expect a negative relationship as teams that employ high tempo offenses are more adequately prepared to stay healthy while running it. While a very slight relationship exists, it doesn’t look to be that large, if it even exists at all.

#4 – Hmmm…now it’s officially interesting. When we look at the rate of defensive injury against offensive plays per game, there is our most significant positive relationship. A correlation of 0.39 is significantly more than we’ve seen in the other three instances, and it’s also the only one where there is a clear incentive to fake injuries.

Taken alone, this relationship might be explained by the fatigue theory, but I think it’s tougher to make that argument when you don’t see anywhere close to the same relationship in all other situations. When a defense is bad and on the field a lot, they don’t get hurt more often, when an offense is good and runs lots of plays, they don’t get hurt more often, and when a defense is bad and their opponent runs a lot of plays, they don’t get hurt more often. The only ones who show a substantial increase in injury stoppages as plays increase are opposing defenses.

To me, that’s pretty freaking suspicious. Either opposing defenses are the only ones who suffer from fatigue-related injuries…or maybe some of the injuries aren’t injuries at all.

Now, this is far from 100% conclusive. It may be that defensive players naturally get more fatigued than offensive players due to their roles (i.e., offensive players can take more plays off because they know the play calls)…but I don’t really buy that. I think there’s at least a little bit of shenanigans.

It’s also an entirely different question as to how much this even matters. Any fake injury will happen on the margins, as you see the number of total injury stoppages remain relatively small (2-3 total per game). But for an Eagles team that narrowly missed the playoffs, the marginal differences matter.

Solutions

So is there a way to address teams that fake injuries? There are certainly options, but some of them are just impractical. The NHL has a penalty for diving, but you really can’t ask the officials to diagnose injuries and try to penalize fakers. You could charge a team a timeout, which the NFL already does if an injury occurs in the last two minutes. That’s much easier than trying to penalize teams, but also provides incentive for coaches and players to hide injuries (also, what do you do in the case of a ‘Body Bag Game’?)

One idea I think might actually be workable, is to tweak the NFL’s current rule for injured players. As it stands today, an injured player who causes a stoppage has to miss at least one play. Well, if you want to eliminate fake injuries, you should raise the cost to those players for faking, and you can do that simply by making them sit out longer. What if, when a player is injured and causes an official stoppage, they must sit out not for just one play, but for the remainder of that series or until a change of possession?

Missing the rest of a series is a bit more significant than missing just one play, and is something that could balance the equation on faking injuries. It also dovetails nicely with the NFL’s stated emphasis on player safety (interpret my use of the term ‘stated’ as you will, based on your own level of cynicism)

If there are fake injuries happening, such an increase in missed time might be enough to keep anyone from acting hurt. Requiring a player to miss the remainder of a series also isn’t as significant as forcing them out for the rest of a quarter or a game.

Some would argue that this isn’t even a problem worth focusing on. But if fast-paced offenses gain greater acceptance in the NFL (which will happen if more of them succeed), the issue will only become more prominent (beyond the realm of the paranoid Eagles fan) and could materially impact the game.

Summary Data

Below is a table of all the raw data I used here, as a reference:

Bonus – Jevon Kearse All-Stars

One last thing I did with this data, after pulling it together, was dig through and sum up all the specific players who sustained injuries in a game this season.

I wanted to look into it because I was really interested in what I’ve termed the ‘Jevon Kearse All-Stars.’ It may just be a bad memory on my part, but one of the things I really remember about Jevon Kearse’s tenure with the Eagles was his tendency to hurt himself and fall to the ground like he got shot. I feel like his injuries always looked more serious than they actually were. It’s possible I’m misremembering, and if so I apologize to the Freak. But with that said, here were the league leaders in injury stoppages in the NFL this year:

Now I’m not accusing these guys of faking injuries, these just happened to be the guys with the most injury stoppages in the play-by-play data (excluding special teams, which most of these guys don’t play anyway).

Enjoy your spot on the Kearse All-Stars guys – the trophy (it’s an ace bandage) is in the mail!

Notes from Yesterday

Just a few notes from yesterday’s game:

– I don’t understand Chip’s decision to dial down the offense in the second half.  It makes complete sense to become more conservative and to take fewer risks when you have a lead (think equation).  HOWEVER, when the opposing team is basically begging for you to take a shot, you should take it.

Early in the game, it was clear the Eagles were going to take shots downfield when they had Cooper matched up one-on-one with a DB with no safety over top.  It almost led to an early TD (Cooper lost sight of the ball).  Anyway, late in the game the Redskins were packing 8 in the box and playing a single deep safety.  That means you’ve got both D-Jax and Cooper against a CB, and the safety can only help on one of them.

Somehow, a situation Chip was hoping for and targeting early in the game lost its appeal.  Keep in mind that this is not a high-risk play.  Throwing it deep to Cooper when he’s in single coverage is very unlikely to produce an outcome worse than an incomplete pass.

Given that we saw this exact same situation play out last time the team played the Redskins, after which Chip claimed he learned his lesson, I’m worried this will be a recurring issue.  Obviously, that would necessitate having big leads, which would be awesome, but it’s still a bad habit.  My only guess as to the reasoning is that Chip still doesn’t fully trust Foles.

– Overall a good win, but let’s remember that the Redskins aren’t a good team.  We’ll learn a LOT more about the team when it faces Arizona and Detroit after the bye week.  To date, the Eagles “best” win came against a Green Bay team playing with its 3rd string QB.  It remains to be seen whether the Eagles rank within the “mediocre” division of the NFL.  They’ve lost against Dallas and San Diego…which would suggest they’re at the bottom of that subset of teams.  If so, they’ll have trouble against the Cardinals.

– Still researching the topic, but safe to say that Nick Foles is at least close to doing something unprecedented.

He now has a career rating of 97.6, with 22 TDs and just 5 interceptions.  He’s also rushed for 3 TDs.

His rating this season is currently 128.  The single-season record is 122.5 (Aaron Rodgers).

Under Chip Kelly, he’s seen significant playing time in 6 games…he’s won 5 of them.

His career interception rate is now 1.2%.  The NFL Record for a career rate is 1.7% (Aaron Rodgers…yeah, he’s really good).

As I showed at the end of last week, few QBs have, at ANY point in their careers, had a career rating that as high as Foles does now.  The fact that Foles has it 15 appearances and 11 starts into his career is a very good sign.

Naturally, it’s a safe bet that Foles won’t maintain this level of play.  The next question, though, is:

What are the odds a “bad” QB could have a stretch of games like this?

How about a “mediocre” QB?

We could probably turn to Bayesian analysis to help out, but for now, it’s enough to know that the odds of either situation aren’t very good.  When you then consider that fact that he’s doing it to start his career, I think it’s safe to say Foles’ odds are now pointing heavily in favor of at least “solid NFL starter” and potentially much higher.

– Last point.  Chip was correct in going for it on 4th and 1.  There’s just not much to gain from punting the ball there, especially in comparison to the relatively high likelihood of maintaining possession.  I was much more concerned about the play-call.  It looked like a delayed handoff, which would be an inexplicable call (especially to Bryce Brown).  However, it may also have just been a miscommunication.  Unfortunately, the announcers had already stopped calling the game and were too busy to bother talking about it.  I don’t think we even got a replay.  I’ll have to review the film, but my first impression was: right strategy, wrong play.

 

P.S. It’s week 12 (practically) and the Eagles are entering their bye week in first place.

Momentum: Yes it’s real…but that’s no excuse

Before I get to today’s topic, Momentum, I wanted to note that yesterday’s post, The Hot Seat Index, has now been updated.  There was a flaw in the win change column of the table that was helpfully pointed out by a commenter.  It’s now fixed.  The results aren’t dramatically different, but scroll down to see the update if you want.

Now…

Everybody who watches the NFL (or any sport for that matter) is familiar with the term “momentum”.  It’s used very often by commentators and announcers to describe the ebb and flow of the game.  More importantly, it’s dismissed and derided by the “analytic” community.  On the surface, it’s a clear front in the battle between “old school” and “new school” fans/analysts/etc…  Now I want to weigh in.

As you may have predicted, at a high level, I agree with the “new school”.  However, I think a lot of the members of the side of the discussion, whether through inattention or ignorance, aren’t characterizing Momentum correctly.

Momentum absolutely exists.

I have no doubts about that.  So why do I still agree with the analytic community over momentum’s relative worthlessness?

Well first, let me define momentum exactly as I see it.  When we discuss Momentum, we’re essentially saying that the events of the game have unfolded such that a player’s expected performance distribution fundamentally changes.  Some combination of pressure, confidence, attitude, etc…, supposedly diminishes the expected performance of the players.

I’m willing to admit that it’s possible for a player to underperform his true ability based on one or more of these factors.  However, why is the converse not possible?  Given a host of different stimuli, we can find people who react to said stimuli in contrary ways.  Just as not “having the momentum” can diminish performance in some players, it seems logical that it can also INCREASE performance among other players.  For example, can you think of any athletes that seem to play BETTER when they are losing by a lot or when the other team seems to “have” the momentum?  If so, we have a problem.  In order to assert Momentum, you’d have to accurately balance the players who play worse against those who play better.

More importantly, in football, there are a LOT of players on the field at once.  Even if we knew how one player would react, it wouldn’t tell us much about the game unless we knew how the OTHER 21 players on the field reacted.

That’s a long way of saying that, even if Momentum is real, it is NOT knowable.  We can’t even agree on what factors play a role, let alone measure them.  If a factor is not measurable, or even theoretically knowable, is it of any actual value?

Let’s equate it to Luck.  Clearly, luck is real and plays a very real role in the outcome of NFL games.  However, luck, as I’m thinking of it, is also UNKNOWABLE.  We don’t know how the ball will bounce once it’s fumbled.  We don’t know if a sudden wind gust will blow a field goal off course.  So we have a similar knowledge of luck and momentum.

However, commentators appear to think we KNOW things about momentum that we can’t possible know.  Let’s play a game.  I’m going to list a common phrase, then we’ll do a little variable replacement.

– “Team A really needs to score to shift the momentum”

Hear it all the time.  As we’ve just discussed, we have just as much knowledge about momentum as we do about luck, so what happens when we use that equivalence to rewrite the sentence above?

– “Team A really needs to score to shift the luck”

Sounds ridiculous, right?  Like, completely outrageous and anyone who said it on the air would be ridiculed mercilessly.

So why are we so tolerant when commentators use “momentum”?  As I tried to explain, we don’t really know anymore about the effects, conditional requirements, or significance of momentum, so isn’t it ridiculous to assert it as a goal?

Or how about:

– “Team B really has the momentum on their side now!”

We have no idea what that means!  We CAN’T know what that means, because momentum is made up of an extremely large number of unquantifiable variables, the effects of which are unclear even if we DID know how to measure them.  It’s as ridiculous as saying:

– “Team B really has the luck on their side now!”

It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s worthless as an explanatory phrase.

Now, this doesn’t mean that “momentum” should be stricken from the vocabulary of every announcer.  Just as there are very appropriate uses of “luck” while describing the game, there are potentially valid uses of “momentum”.

The problem occurs when announcers and fans start using MOMENTUM as a justification for play-calling or as a goal itself.  For example, going for it on fourth down because you “had” the momentum.  It’s likely that going for it was the right move (see previous posts), but that justification is ridiculous.   There’s just absolutely no way of knowing if the particular circumstances at any point in time qualify as “Momentum” or if that actually means that your players are more likely to perform or the other team is any less likely to perform.

I don’t think most announcers think about these things when they use the phrase.  It’s, unfortunately, a descriptive crutch.  It’s just another way of saying “Team A has made a lot of good plays in close succession”.   That in itself isn’t a huge offense, but it’s frequently used to justify some assertion that Team A is then MORE LIKELY to be successful on plays until the momentum changes again.

That of course is ridiculous, and why most “analytic” minded fans and commentators are so dismissive of the concept in general.  If it ended at a description of what HAS happened rather than support for what WILL happen, it would’t be nearly as annoying.

So…the final point:

Momentum is very real.  However, it’s not quantifiable or knowable, and therefore is completely useless to us in terms of advancing our understanding of the NFL or sports in general.

Now…about “clutch”…

Time to step back and reflect

After a couple busy days in free agency, it’s time to step back and take stock of where the team is and where it might be going.

First, regardless of where you believe the team’s weaknesses are, the Eagles deserve a very high grade for what they’ve done so far.  As I showed after day one, they’ve hit on most of my “wish list” and there are still plenty of players out there and no reason the team will not sign anyone else.  I do have a few concerns, but I’ll get to those later.

The surface $ numbers surprised me on a couple of the deals (Barwin and Williams), but the reported guaranteed numbers make a lot more sense.  The Eagles haven’t hamstrung themselves with any outrageous deals, which is (or should be) rule #1 for FA.

Now for specifics:

Chip Kelly doesn’t give a fuck about Graham, Cole, Curry, or anyone else on the roster.

After the Barwin signing, a lot of people are worried about how Kelly will fit the DEs into the scheme, which is flawed thinking.  Kelly has no ties to these players.  Right now he is signing any player he believes will be a good fit for his system, as long as they take reasonable contracts.

If at the end of the day that means Cole and Graham are relegated to the bench, so be it. Kelly’s not going to lose sleep over that.

Overall, I think he’ll enter camp with an open competition for just about every position, and go from there.  That was his MO at Oregon, and I see no reason why he’d change his philosophy here.  I’m as excited as anyone about how Graham played last year, but Kelly is not going to alter his plan just to keep a guy like that on the field.

I believe you can summarize the Eagles FA philosophy like this:  Add depth/talent, breed competition, don’t kill your cap, and let the depth chart shake itself out in camp.

Still need another DT: 

The team still needs to add a DT. RJF seemed to be the perfect guy, but the money didn’t make sense.  They could (and likely will) add someone in the draft.  If it were me, even with a rookie addition, I’d want another low-budget veteran that has some experience in a 3-4.

Don’t get too excited about the safeties: 

Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips, when healthy, would be BIG upgrades over what the Eagles had last year.  Not sure if I have made this point before, but the Eagles Safeties last year were SO bad, that merely getting league average play from them this year would be a huge improvement.

In light of that, the Eagles really didn’t need to do much to start fixing that area of the team. My problem with Chung and Phillips is that they took on risk when they didn’t need to.  I really like the upside of both players, but both are SIGNIFICANT injury risks.  That means there’s a distinct possibility that, at some point in the season, the Eagles will be left with the same starting safeties as last year.

Again, I like both signings; they’re the definition of low-risk/medium-reward as far as the numbers go.  However, I’d have felt better if they had added an average level veteran that they KNEW was going to be available every game, even if he provided just mediocre play.

I’d be shocked if Eagles don’t add a S in the draft (they may do so as high as the 2nd round), so perhaps that’s where the additional player comes in.

In any case, don’t get too excited about the secondary being “fixed”.  Odds are one of the guys they signed (if not more) is going to either get injured or not pan out.  That’s why you have to throw a lot of shit at the wall; not everything’s gonna stick.

For the record, Connor Barwin did have a down year last season.  However, he is just 26 years old, and even off his peak from two years ago is far better than most of the LBs we have.  He also has a LOT of 3-4 experience.  This was a great signing, even if he doesn’t get close to double-digit sacks.

The starting CBs?

This is a similar story.  I like each player the Eagles signed individually, but it’d be silly to pretend there isn’t a lot of risk here.

Cary Williams appears to be the clear leader for #1 CB….I’m not sure he’s that good.  He certainly has the talent, but to date has been inconsistent.  The good news is he plays with a lot of “attitude”, which I sincerely believe was a big factor in the signing.  Kelly/Roseman must have watched tape last year and seen the team roll over.  Williams is not wired that way, he’ll fight (sometimes literally) regardless of the time/score/record.   He’s also very physical and not afraid to tackle, which will be a nice change of pace from what Eagles fans have seen the last few years.

Bradley Fletcher, as I’ve already explained, is a great risk/reward signing.  He’ll compete for the second starting CB job.  If he’s healthy he gets it.

The big thing to remember here is the ceiling we are looking at.  Previously, the Eagles somewhat consistently had, on paper, the best CB pairing in the league (or one of them).  Going back to Vincent/Taylor through Brown/Sheppard (for a time) to Asante/Nnamdi/DRC (remember I said “on paper”).  We are no longer looking for that, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Even at full health, a Williams/Fletcher combo is not going to be among the best CB tandems in the league (it’s possible but very unlikely).  The Eagles are now looking for reliability, not excellence.  After last year, though, average will look like excellent.

The OL: 

This is the elephant in the Eagles FA room.  Everyone expected the team to address this group, either by adding a starting OT or, at the very least, adding a young player to provide depth.  So far we’ve got….crickets… I’ve got a couple of theories on this.

A) The Eagles have tracked the medical progress of their starters and are convinced all of them will be ready for day 1 of the season.  As a result, no need to pay big money for a starter.  Maybe add a low-priced depth guy after the rest of FA shakes out or draft a couple of players late to compete for back-up spots.

B) The Eagles new regime has watched tape of Danny Watkins and truly believes he can be a viable starter.  This is like adding another starter, so no need to find a big name OT in FA.  Herremans remains on the right side.  Youth and depth will be added in the middle of the draft.

C) The Eagles have already decided that they love Joeckel/Fisher and are set to take him with #4 overall.  Obviously, if they plan on selecting a starting OT in the draft (with the #4 pick), there’s no reason to sign a FA to fill that role.

No idea which theory is accurate (there are certainly others to consider as well).  I hope it’s not C though, and I don’t believe it is.  Which leads me to…

The Draft: 

A lot of people have mentioned that the Eagles moves have “freed” the team to do whatever they want in the draft.  This is a mistake.  The Eagles were free to do what they wanted regardless of who they signed.  Roseman has made it VERY clear that his picks will not be dictated by positional need.  My reading of the situation is that Reid forced the Watkins pick on Howie, and that backfired spectacularly.  Hence, Howie will not choose for need in the first couple rounds.

That is obviously good news for Eagles fans.  Other good news for Eagles fans is the increasing hype for Geno Smith.

Remember folks, I made this point a long time ago.  Smith is very athletic, had a great college career, and completed 70% of his passes last year.  This guy has 1st round written all over him.  Also, PVM has him ranked as the #8 OVERALL prospect.

A while ago I mentioned that the Eagles may be holding the best pick for any team that wants to trade up.  Kansas City isn’t trading its pick.  Oakland and Jax could conceivably each select Geno Smith, but I think the odds of that are low.  Seems too rational for Oakland, and Jacksonville has so many holes that I’m not sure they can afford to give up on Gabbert just yet.  After that, a team like the Cardinals is a prime suspect to get scared and make the jump.

For the record, I do believe there is some legitimate interest in Geno on the Eagles part.  However, I don’t think there’s any way they take him at #4.

I think the most likely scenario is that they make every effort possible to trade down within the top ten, select the BPA (probably an OT or DT) and pick up an extra 2nd round pick.  Then they can use one of those 2nd rounders on defense and the other on whichever QB prospect they secretly like (EJ Manuel?  Nassib if he’s there?).

Regardless, the fact that Geno is now getting serious love increases the value of the Eagles pick.

That’s all for now, I’m at over 1500 words and half the audience (if not more) has probably already left…

Hopefully we’ll have another signing or two to talk about soon.

 

 

 

2013 NFL Draft Prospect Tiers

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of prospect tiers when it comes to the NFL Draft.  However, to my knowledge I have not yet provided any for this year, so I’ll do that today.

The value of this approach is obvious to me and I’ve explained it in detail before.  Quickly: Teams have to recognize that there is a significant margin of error in any individual player evaluation.  Therefore, saying Player A is a 99 and Player B is a 98, so I should take Player A is complete foolishness.  Nobody’s evaluations are accurate enough to allow for that much precision.  Again, refer back to your fantasy draft strategies. I’m confident most of you use some form of a tiered approach.  Each team can (and should) have their own tiers according to their evaluations and positional values, but the overall concept remains.

Now let’s look at the players.

First, glad to see Todd McShay has bought in.  Here are his top tiers, which can be found at ESPN (you might need Insider to see the whole article).  Overall, his take is that if you remove Andrew Luck and RG3, this year’s talent level is no worse than last year, despite what most are saying.

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A big note: McShay’s ratings here do not match up entirely with the Scouts Inc. ratings on ESPN’s main page.  My guess is that the ratings here are updated, but I have no way of knowing that.  As a result, the PVM ranks and the tiers below have not been updated with these numbers.  Once I know which ratings are the right Scouts Inc. numbers, I will update the PVM consensus ratings and repost.  I will update for changes in the other sources as well so that on draft day we will have an accurate measure for consensus ratings.

The good news?  Mcshay’s top tier is 4 players deep, all of whom play a position at which the Eagles need help.  This means the Eagles can stop thinking and just take whatever player is on the board, ensuring themselves of getting one of the draft’s few elite prospects.

The bad news (well maybe bad news)?  My tiers are a bit different.  Building from the PVM rankings:

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Drawing the lines is admittedly a bit subjective; I’ve included the ratings so you can draw your own if you’d like.  Obviously this set of tiers is slightly worse for the Eagles, since it shows just 2 prospects in the top tier.  Additionally, the 4th ranked player is Chance Warmack, who some of us would be less than thrilled with getting.

However, I’m getting a bit too deep in the weeds there.   The key to this breakdown is the wider view.  The idea is that NOBODY has any real idea of who be be the better player out of, for example, WRs Patterson or Allen.   The best you can do is make sure you get one of those guys (if you need a WR) while spending as little draft resources as possible.

I realize that players at the same position may project differently and therefore be better or worse fits for certain teams.  Teams will incorporate “fit” into their individual draft tiers, so the idea still holds.

It’s all about recognizing and accepting uncertainty.  For example, if there are 3 DEs rated similarly and you can either trade up to #13 to grab the “best” one or stay at #24 and take whoever is left, it’s probably best to sit tight (or to trade up just a couple of draft spots to ensure you get whoever is left).

Ignore the Dolphins, Eagles won day 1 of FA

Now that’s more like it…as I suspected, none of the pre-free agency rumor bullshit had anything to do with what actually happened (at least as far as the Eagles are concerned).

For those living under a rock, the Eagles signed 5 players:

James Casey (TE, FB, WR, HB, etc…)

Patrick Chung (S)

Bradley Fletcher (CB)

Isaac Sopoaga (NT)

Jason Phillips (LB)

If you read my post yesterday, you can probably guess that I absolutely love what the team did on day one.  Let me bring back what I said yesterday (in italics) and use it to frame today’s post:

In general though, my FA plan would be:

– Add depth (everywhere) with low-priced veterans on 1-2 year deals.  

Not sure the team could have done better on this goal in one day.  The Eagles need new blood, and given the defensive holes and ST weaknesses, they need a lot of bodies to compete for those spots.

Patrick Chung is a promising player who has struggled with injury.  If healthy, he’s likely a starting safety for us.  Not sure if it’s at FS or SS yet, but the fact that he can play a little of both helps.  He’s also just 26 years old.  Not much guaranteed money in his deal, so it’s very much a low-risk-moderate reward opportunity.  If he can stay healthy, we may have just found a starter, if not, he’s gone after this year and we move on.  BTW, he played at Oregon with Kelly.

Bradley Fletcher is, in my opinion, the best signing any team made yesterday.  He’s young, has a lot of potential, plays a premium position, and didn’t take a ton of money.  At 6’0″ 200 lbs, he also has rare size for a corner.  He fell out of favor in St. Louis and has a history of injury (2 ACL tears).  However, he has the ability to be a good starting CB, and the Eagles got him with very little risk.  Also, according to Tommy Lawlor, he has the best cover skills of any CB in free agency.

James Casey is getting a lot of love in the press, but I’m not sure what to make of him.  Versatile player who apparently is highly regarded by Chip, but until we know the type of offense Kelly will run it’s really impossible to get a good read on how much Casey will contribute.  In any case, the Eagles gave him 3 yrs $14.5 million, so you’d think they plan to use him a fair amount (though I have no idea how that money is structured).

– Add a NT. Doesn’t have to be a great one (not many of those in the NFL), but a huge need if the team is moving to a 3-4.  This wouldn’t preclude taking one in the draft, but even then you need a back-up and it would be nice to not be overly reliant on Dixon.

Ask and ye shall receive….Sopoaga.  Not a guy to get excited about, but the fact is the Eagles needed a body at NT; they literally did not have a single one on the roster, which is problematic for a team thinking 3-4 (or some variation of it).  Sopoaga did not play well last year, so fans shouldn’t expect much from him.  At the very least, though, he’ll compete with Antonio Dixon for the starting job or be a quality backup to a NT not currently on the roster.

– MAYBE add one marquee guy, as long as he is relatively young (<26-27).  Plenty of cap space, so if the team loves a guy like Smith or Long then take a shot.  Key is to pick the one they really like and let the others go.

No marquee guy yesterday, but that’s fine.  Marquee guys are where teams screw up.  Still rumors out there that the Eagles like Jake Long, but no way to tell if they’re true (I’m skeptical).  I think the team will kick the tires on a few OTs, but only bring one in if the money is reasonable (i.e. not paying starting LT money).

– Don’t tie up cap space beyond this year.  This is a massive transition for the Eagles, and the fact is that Howie/Chip themselves don’t know how it’s going to shake out.  They key is to bolster the roster while maintaining cap flexibility for the next couple years.  With so many moving parts, it’s impossible to say who fits and who doesn’t, so throwing big money around is very risky.

Team gets an A+ on this aspect.  None of the deals are big-money or will have any significant effect on the cap situation after this year.  Signing a guy like Goldson would make news, but I don’t think it’s the right strategy for the team right now.

I expect a few more signings, hopefully get Ricky Jean-Francois wrapped up this morning (he’s visiting) to provide more DL depth/versatility.  If the team comes away with a big name OT, great.  If not, I’ll be quite happy with another handful of guys like the ones they signed yesterday.

The key to FA is to find low-risk/moderate-reward players.  The draft is where you find your stars.  Once the rest of the team is built out and the roster is strong, then overpaying for an impact FA makes sense.  For now, though, be patient.

P.S. I didn’t talk about Jason Phillips because he’s likely just a depth LB and special-teamer, but if the guy let’s us plant Jamar “The Invisible Man” Chaney on the bench (or on the street), he becomes a personal favorite.

 

Prospect Rankings via Positional Value Multiplier

Today, with the help of a collaborator, I’ll give you prospect rankings for the NFL Draft that you won’t find anywhere else.  As I’ve explained before, I am not a scout and have not watched film on every top prospect in this year’s draft. However, I believe what I’ll show you today is more useful than any individual scout’s ranking.

First things first, big thanks to George Laevsky (JD from Georgetown) for the help.  He came up with the idea and name for the Positional Value Multiplier and worked with me on compiling/computing the necessary data.

To keep this clean, I’ll explain it in 3 sections.  First I’ll tell you what we did, then I’ll tell you how we did it, then I’ll show you the results.  That way, if you want to skip the middle section you can.

What We Did:

The overall aim of this project was to apply a positional value modifier to the consensus prospect rankings, with the hopes of generating a more accurate system of ranking value.  We compiled a composite prospect rating for each player (through the first couple rounds) and then adjusted for positional importance according to last seasons’ league-wide positional salary distribution.

Before we go into the How details, here is the consensus prospect ranking using ratings from Scouts Inc (ESPN), the National Football Post, and NFL.com.  Note: NFP uses a different grading scale, so those scores were adjusted to give us an apples-to-apples rating.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 11.19.43 AMThat graphic alone is pretty interesting, particularly when the ratings diverge (see Ryan Nassib at the bottom), but we’ll look at that some other time.

For today’s post, we have to adjust.

How We Did It:

I mentioned last week that no BPA ranking is complete without an adjustment for relative positional value.  For example (an extreme one), if a QB and K both carry a 95 rating, you’d obviously choose the QB first.  The question is, how do we measure relative importance by position?

While there is no bullet-proof method of doing so, the salary distribution in the NFL is as good a place as any to divine information from.  In theory, since the NFL has a salary cap, the distribution of limited funds between positions will give us an idea of how the league, on average, values different positions in relation to each other.

We pulled salary cap information from this awesome graphic featured in the Guardian at the end of January.  It’s not perfect (reflects cap hits from last season and misses some IR guys), but in general I believe it’s as good a breakdown as any for our purposes today.  After adjusting for the number of players by position, we calculated a Positional Value Multiplier (“PVM”) for each major position (FB, K, P not included).  We then applied that multiplier to the above consensus rankings.

Here are the multiplier values we arrived at, in order from largest to smallest:

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For the most part these make a lot of sense, based on what’s “common knowledge”.  QBs are, by far, the most important position.  However, the relative rankings of WRs and RBs certainly surprised me, though due to the noise in the data, it’s best not to get hung up on the minute differences in values above.  Instead, we can see there are some clear “tiers” (I feel like I am using that term a lot).

Tier 1 – QBs

Tier 2 – WR, CB, DE, RB, DT

Tier 3 – OT, LB, TE, S

Tier 4 – C, G

The only thing in those rankings that immediately draws my attention is the OT position in the 3rd tier.  But that data is what it is, we can debate the reasons later.

Now that we have the PVM values, we can apply it to the prospect rankings.

The Results:

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Some very interesting movement.  The right-most column shows the effects of the positional modifier.  The AG Rank column is the pre-adjustment consensus ranking.

Notes:

– Dee Milliner jumps two places to become the top overall prospect.

– Chance Warmack, though he drops 3 spots, remains a top 5 prospect, damaging my belief that a G in the top 15 picks is a very poor decision.

– QBs, as expected, benefit the most.  Geno Smith jumps 11 spots to become a top ten prospect, while Nassib and Barkley move into the middle of the first round.

– The biggest jump overall comes from Tyler Wilson (20 spots), who moves from the middle of the second round to the end of the first.

– Zach Ertz (TE) and Jonathan Cyprien (S) are hurt the most, falling out of the first round, and therefore off the chart above.

One last thing: I want to be perfectly clear about the value of this analysis.  The idea here is that BPA is an overly simplistic and flawed method of drafting by its current definition.  For example, while Geno Smith (19th consensus) may be a worse prospect than Kenny Vaccaro (9th consensus), with lower odds of success, the potential payoff is so much greater for Smith that he becomes a better choice (at least as shown here).  Hitting on a QB offers a MUCH greater reward than hitting on a S (or really any other position), so it makes complete sense that QBs are perennially “over-drafted”.

In essence, what we are showing here is that they are not, in fact, “over-drafted”.  Yes, they might have greater odds of failure, but that does not make them bad picks.  Remember, you have to look at both Risk AND Reward, balancing the two.  The above rankings is an effort to do that in a method as simple and transparent as possible.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried to advance the idea that the “consensus” forecast should carry a large degree of inertia within NFL front offices.  Imagine the above rankings as equivalent to a total market stock index.  For anyone going against the total market index, they must believe VERY STRONGLY that they have better information or better analysis than the rest of the market.  It should function in much the same way in the NFL (and all professional sports leagues).  The idea is NOT that teams should blindly follow the “market”, just that they should hold their own evaluations up to very high scrutiny before acting on them, especially when they largely conflict with available data.

I’ll be examining this in a lot more detail, which may or may not lead to more posts on the subject.  In any case, this should give everyone something to think about come draft day.

For what it’s worth, my subjective pick for the Eagles would still be Lotulelei/Joeckel.  However, unless I adjust the PVM formula (or if the consensus ratings change), it looks like Dee Millner is now, objectively, in the lead.

UPDATED: Also, below is the same analysis for the rest of the players we looked at:

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